The perennial brilliance and Catholic vision of William Shakespeare

An interview with Joseph Pearce, author of three books on Shakespeare and editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions series published by Ignatius Press.

Portrait of William Shakespeare, who died on April 23, 1616. (Image: Wikipedia)

William Shakespeare, widely considered the greatest writer the English language has ever produced, died on April 23, 1616—and there is some evidence suggesting he was born on the same date in 1564. In a short life of just 52 years, he wrote some of the greatest plays and poems the world has ever read and heard. Perhaps it is this combination of fame and genius that has made him a critical target, as he has become the focus of many revisionist “scholars” who wish to read their own modern agendas into his famous works.

Combating this revisionist approach is Joseph Pearce, a prolific writer has written acclaimed biographies of Oscar Wilde, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others. He is also the series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions series, published by Ignatius Press, which aims to provide critical editions of classic works of literature that are free of any modern re-imaginings or revisionist interpretations. In addition to being series editor, he is editor of many of the series volumes, notably the plays of William Shakespeare included in the series. He has also written three books on William Shakespeare and analysis of his plays.

Pearce recently spoke with Catholic World Report to discuss Shakespeare, the unfailing interest in the famed Bard and his work, and why it is important to learn Shakespeare with the aid of authentic, honest scholarship.

Catholic World Report: What is it about William Shakespeare? Why is he still a fixture—possibly the preeminent one—in the canon of western literature so many centuries following his life and death?

Joseph Pearce: Quite frankly, it’s all about his brilliance, which is matched, if at all, only by two other possible contenders: Homer and Dante. He is brilliant as a dramatist, as a poet, as a keen observer of human nature, and as one who sees the difference between the transient and the permanent things. It is his exposition of the latter which keeps him perennially relevant.

CWR: You are the author of three books about William Shakespeare and his works (The Quest for ShakespeareThrough Shakespeare’s Eyes, and Shakespeare on Love). Why have you written so much about the Bard of Avon?

Pearce: I don’t feel that I’ve written enough! Were I to have the time, I’d like to engage with all the plays, as well as the poems and sonnets, on the level of engagement that characterized the approach I took in Through Shakespeare’s Eyes (i.e. several chapters on each play). I could envisage writing separate books on the early history plays, the Elizabethan comedies, the Henriad, the Roman plays, the Jacobean comedies, the great tragedies, the late romances, and the poems and sonnets. That would be eight more books, in addition to the three I’ve written already. I feel that I’ve hardly scratched the surface.

CWR: In Through Shakespeare’s Eyes and Shakespeare on Love, you argue that you can see the Catholic presence in the plays. Some might argue that there is also evidence to the contrary, and that one can’t discern details about an author’s life based on the fictional characters and situations he depicts. How would you respond to that?

Pearce: You are asking two distinctly different questions which mustn’t be conflated. The Catholic presence in the plays is discernible from a reading of the integrity and entirety of the texts themselves and is distinct from the biographical details of Shakespeare’s life. One could discern the Catholic presence in the plays if we knew nothing about Shakespeare’s life. This is why I wrote separate and distinct books on the plays and on the life.

The Quest for Shakespeare focused on the evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism from the facts that we know about his life. Through Shakespeare’s Eyes and Shakespeare on Love focused on the clear and present evidence for his Catholicism discernible in the texts of his work. It is true, of course, that an author’s most deeply-held convictions are going to be present in the plays. If Shakespeare is a Catholic, we would expect to see evidence of it in the plays. The point is, however, that the deep Catholic dimension is present in the plays, irrespective of what we know about Shakespeare’s life.

As for those who argue that there is evidence to the contrary, I would ask to see the evidence. All the “evidence” that I’ve seen is based upon woeful and prejudiced misreadings, coupled with a selective blindness to the clear Christian moral presence. I address these misreadings in my books. I have seen no convincing evidence of anything but a Catholic presence in the plays, the latter of which is discernible in the presentation of good and evil in orthodox Christian terms, and in the presence of a Christian theological and philosophical understanding of the cosmos.

CWR: Why does it matter whether or not Shakespeare was Catholic?

Pearce: It matters historically and literarily. To begin with the former, knowing what people believed is at least as important as what they did and how they did it. These distinctions are crucial. They are what might be termed the motivational, chronological and mechanical dimensions of history. We will not understand history if we only know when things were done and how they were done but do not know why they were done. In fact, since action is predicated on motive, what we believe theologically and philosophically dictates what we do and how we do it. A Christian will be motivated to do things that the cynic would not be motivated to do, and vice versa.

This brings us to the literary importance of Shakespeare’s Catholicism. If he is a Catholic, his motives for writing the plays would be radically different from what they would have been had he been a cynic. Furthermore, his beliefs would motivate what he chose to write and how he chose to write it. In this sense, it is perilous to divorce a literary work from the personhood of its author. Severing the one from the other is to take a sola scriptura approach to reading in which we replace the authorial authority with our own subjectively motivated pride and prejudice. To read objectively is to seek to read through the eyes of the most authoritative “other”, i.e. the author, as far as this is possible.

CWR: What do you make of the theory that the plays attributed to William Shakespeare were actually written by several different people?

Pearce: I address these theories in the opening chapter of my book, The Quest for Shakespeare, which is entitled “Will the Real Shakespeare Please Stand Up?” I would refer people to that chapter. There’s not the space within the constraints of an interview to expose the fundamental fallacies upon which these absurd theories are based. Needless to say, all the real factual historical evidence points to Shakespeare’s plays being written by Shakespeare himself. It was Chesterton who quipped that “Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else.”

Joseph Pearce

CWR: How did your personal experience of Shakespeare develop? Were you familiar with his work in your younger days, or did you come to him later on?

Pearce: My father idolized Shakespeare and would quote swathes from the plays to me, including whole speeches. It could be said, therefore, that I grew up with Shakespeare. It was, however, not until I was in my forties that I became curious about who he was as a man. It was then that I began to write about him.

CWR: You are general editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions series, and editor of the particular volumes covering some of Shakespeare’s plays. Can you tell us a little about the series, its genesis, and why it is important to understand literature without imposing modern revisionist interpretations on these works?

Pearce: The idea and inspiration for the Ignatius Critical Editions came from my experience of using the Norton or Oxford editions of Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights< in a course on Romanticism that I was teaching at Ave Maria University about fifteen years ago. I objected to the anti-Christian, feminist, Marxist and “queer theory” critical essays and introductions in these editions, which clearly served warped agendas and did not reflect the views or intentions of the authors of either work.

I didn’t feel comfortable putting this subjective and objectionable nonsense into the hands of my students and decided that tradition-oriented teachers and students needed an alternative to this poison. What was needed was a tradition-oriented approach which aimed to see literary works objectively through the perspective of the authors and not through the warped prism of modern and postmodern critical theory. I suggested the idea of the series to Father Fessio of Ignatius Press and the Ignatius Critical Editions were born.

CWR: Sometimes it seems that Shakespeare is a particular target of such revisionism or foisted modernization. Think of how often his plays are produced on stage in “modern times” or “the not too distant future”, rather than the period for which he wrote them. Why are his works fiddled with like this?

Pearce: I have no particular objection to directors being creative with what might be termed, philosophically, the accidental elements of the play, as long as they don’t tamper with the substance. Thus, for instance, setting Julius Caesar in Napoleonic times or Romeo and Juliet in modern dress does not violate the meaning or substance of either play, each of which presents perennially relevant moral dilemmas which are as applicable to the time of Napoleon as they are today.

The problem arises when a play is inverted or perverted so that the substance of the play is vandalized or violated. An example of such Shakespeare-abuse was a presentation of The Merchant of Venice in which all the Christian characters were cast as skinheads who punctuated their lines by punching, spitting, or otherwise physically abusing Shylock.

CWR: Back in 2018, Kenneth Branagh released the film All Is True, which contends that Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton were lovers. Is this another example of modern “hang-ups” being foisted upon William Shakespeare?

Pearce: This truly awful film makes no effort to remain true to the known facts of Shakespeare’s life, preferring instead to follow the path of pride and anti-Catholic prejudice, reinventing Shakespeare in the image of our own deplorable epoch. All is True is so “inventive” with the truth that one wonders if the makers of the film really believe the lie they are telling in their depiction of Shakespeare’s last years. One wonders if they really believe that Shakespeare was an advocate of the bizarre gender agenda with which they are themselves clearly obsessed.

Do we believe Ben Jonson, who said that Shakespeare was not of an age but for all time, or do we believe Ben Elton, the atheist and hardline socialist who wrote the screenplay to the film, who seems to be saying that Shakespeare was not of his age but ours? Was Shakespeare trapped in a tyrannical England in which people whom he knew were put to death for being Catholics, or was he trapped in his Jacobean closet wishing for a distant future in which he could be part of a Pride parade?

CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Pearce: There’s always so much more to add! Perhaps, God willing, I will find the time to write some more books on Shakespeare before I shuffle off this mortal coil.


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About Paul Senz 93 Articles
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.

9 Comments

  1. “Hamlet, Act 3, scene 1:
    HAMLET:
    Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
    And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
    No more; and by a sleep to say we end
    The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
    That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
    Devoutly to be wish’d.

    “Hamlet,” Act 5, scene 2:
    HORATIO: I am more an antique Roman than a Dane.

  2. I recall a line inserted in a postmodern production of a Shakespeare play in which a character asks “what’s this obsession with the text?”.

  3. Mr. Pearce is very persuasive. The Catholic themes and allusions seem to be evident especially in the late tragedies, How do we explain the unflattering portrayal of Catholic bishops in some of the history plays? What about the very negative depiction of St Joan of Arc in Henry VI Part I? Do we chalk it up entirely to English nationalism?

  4. William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon probably did not write any plays or poetry. Shakespeare was probably a pen name for Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. The case for Oxford is well put forth in a easily available DVD entitled The Shakespeare Conspiracy. In the end, of course, whoever wrote the Shakespeare canon is long since dead, so they are our plays now.

    • You are correct, C.P. Condon, and Pearce merely echoes what others claim about the fellow from Stratford regarding his alleged remarkable brilliance that includes such things as knowing firsthand, intimate details of non-public royal court actions, as well as many more claims of widespread brilliance and learned scholarship that better fit the deVere biography, but not the man from Stratford’s biography. The strongest evidence regarding the authorship actually goes against the claim that the bumpkin Shakspere (or however he actually spelled his name) was the writer, while there is much more evidence to suggest that deVere is indeed the most likely candidate to be the actual writer as you also set forth. Also, while both sides of the primary debate (Stratford vs Oxford) can line up impressive people who believe as they do, it is simply benighted arrogance to dismiss the theories in favor of deVere as absurd as Pearce does when serious and sober, non-conspiracy nutbag thinkers like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia; Actor, author, film-maker Orson Welles; Physicist Roger Penrose; Historian David McCullough; Journalist, Commentator Joseph Sobran; and many others have also looked at the same (and perhaps more evidence) that Pearce has, yet they have come to the conclusion that deVere is indeed the likely person while the man from Stratford was merely a front at best that was needed because of deVere’s position at Court.

  5. I would suggest that S. was rather a “church papist,” one who outwardly conformed to the established, reformed church but who remained sympathetic to the old catholic church. After all, he was baptized, married and buried in the Anglican Church; his biblical quotes seem to come from the Geneva bible, not the Douai; and he lived as a loyal subject of Queen Elizabeth in a protestant regime.

  6. I would note, without making a conclusion, that it is up to the plaintiff in a civil matter to make his case. Speculation as to the “actual” author is interesting (as is the hunt for Jack the Ripper), but even Scalia would acknowledge that conclusive determination has not been made. As far as being Catholic, he probably was and there were few that cared to pursue the matter at the time since his treatment of Richard III and Henry VI went a long way toward sanitizing the rather questionable founding of the Tudor dynasty and Queen Elizabeth’s own cloudy heritage. I would suggest that we continue to appreciate the works as they are and allow the armchair detectives amuse themselves as they wish.

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